Be:Seattle launches campaign to register homeless voters

Housing isn’t a requirement to vote, but in a state that exclusively relies on mail-in ballots for each election, not having a permanent address can be a big obstacle to voting for many people.

With an upcoming mayor’s race amid a worsening homeless situation, Devin Silvernail believes making voting easier to access for people experiencing homelessness will benefit everyone in Seattle.

“These are the voters that are going to change the affordability crisis in Seattle. Because they know firsthand what that looks like, what that feels like,” said Silvernail, founder of Be: Seattle. “They are going to be able to elect people that are going to help all of us.”

Competing with a Seattle Sounders FC game and sunny weather, a small but engaged crowd

launched Be:Seattle’s latest campaign July 19 at Peloton Café, 1220 E. Jefferson St.

The group hopes that installing Interim Voting Access Locations in shelters and with other service providers will make voting easier for people experiencing homelessness. These kiosks will providevoter registration forms and postage stamps along with information about the voting process. Clients will be able to use the service provider’s address to receive their ballot.

So far nine service providers have partnered with Be: Seattle since the group began rolling out the project in June, including The Orion Center at 1828 Yale Ave. and Community Lunch at 500 Broadway E.

Eventually, the group wants service providers to include voter registration forms during the intake process. That would echo a new city law that requires landlords to provide new tenants with those forms.

“It’s low-cost and low-effort for everyone involved,” said Be:Seattle member Kate Means about the group's InterVAL project. “It’s a simple way to get people who otherwise wouldn't have their voices heard to allow them to have their voices heard by the city. In a city that keeps promising to do things for these people.”

The project grew from the group's recent campaign, The Pledge, which connects people experiencing homelessness with local businesses willing to offer complimentary services such as water, coffee or even a place to charge a phone. Peloton Café is one of 14 businesses in nine neighborhoods participating in The Pledge. The group also recently hosted a tenants rights bootcamp series.

In Washington, registering to vote by mail doesn’t require a driver's license or identification card only the last four digits of a person’s social security number. To register online, a current Washington state driver license or state ID card is needed.

Jordan Beaudry, volunteer coordinator at ROOTS Young Adult Shelter, said voting gives people experiencing homelessness not just a means of having a say, but also a feeling of empowerment.

“Homeless people are so disempowered by society at large; most people don’t even acknowledge a homeless person when they walk by them down the street,” he said. “That’s a horrible, horrible disempowering feeling.”

Beaudry said since most of the guests at ROOTS lack control over their lives, the shelter builds autonomy by involving guests in every step of the decision-making process.

“I see this drive to register our guests to vote naturally as an extension of that,” Beaudry said. “The autonomy must not stop at our shelter door.”

Expanding access to the city’s Democracy Voucher program is next on Be: Seattle’s list of projects.

Beaudry said this program would also make a big difference because many people feel, “even if they do vote, it doesn’t matter because the decisions are going to be paid for by the donors anyway.”

“We have a really unique position in Seattle specifically, we are able to not only provide our homeless young adults and homeless people with the opportunity to vote, but also to make a contribution towards a candidate that supports their interest,” Beaudry added.

Writer Hanna Brooks Olsen had a simple message for the crowd: taxation without representation.

“If you are paying sales tax, you are paying taxes; you should be voting,” Olsen said. She writes a monthly column for the Real Change newspaper focusing on barriers to access for people experiencing homelessness. 

“Things really change when people feel involved and invested and empowered in their community,” she added.